Michael Thomas is an entrepreneur, writer and filmmaker. After working for a venture-backed startup in Silicon Valley, he started and sold his business, SimpleData. Using some of the money from the acquisition he started a code school for refugees in Greece. He is a contributing writer for FastCompany. You can learn more about Michael’s latest company by visiting the Campfire Labs website
Network Capital staff interviewed him. Read on.
1. What do you do?
For the last year or so I’ve been making short documentaries and writing stories for magazines like FastCompany, The Atlantic, and Quartz. Now I’m in the process of starting a film studio.
2. Why do you do what you do?
This was a question that I struggled with for about 2 years between 2015 and 2017. After I sold my company, SimpleData, the answer changed: for the first time in my life work was no longer about paying the bills. I also knew that I didn’t want to help salespeople and marketers sell more widgets. But I had no idea what I wanted to do next or why I’d do it.
At the beginning of 2015 I decided to spend a year learning all of the things that I missed in college. I dropped out after my freshman year to start a company so I didn’t have time to explore things like history, philosophy, or other liberal arts. I spent the next year traveling around the world reading books and occasionally writing things on my blog. But without any sense of community or purpose I got pretty lost in my head. While I was in Argentina I emailed an old manager of mine to ask for advice. Among other things he shared this quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
After a bit more soul searching I eventually found myself in Oinofyta Refugee Camp, about an hour outside of Athens, Greece. I initially went there to write a story for FastCompany. During an interview the camp manager told me about her plans to get the residents of the camp remote jobs. The problem as she described it was relatively straightforward: she had a dozen computers, fast wifi, but no one to teach the residents how to find work. The company I sold just months earlier specialized in outsourcing, so when I returned to my home in Colorado I started thinking about how I might be able to help some of the people I met. In May of 2017 I returned with a camera and a friend. The plan was to spend one week teaching refugees to create profiles and find work on Upwork and make a video. I emailed Upwork’s corporate office to tell them about the idea and got about $5,000 in sponsorship money to cover my expenses. But it turns out that problems in the humanitarian world are pretty tricky. They don’t get solved in a week.
Many of the residents couldn’t read, speak English, or use a computer. At one point someone was swiping on the screen to scroll down (wouldn’t you do the same thing if you’d only ever used a smartphone?). However, there were about 5 young men who were translators for the US Army and knew how to use a computer. So we started looking for translation and transcription jobs. But the same thing that made it possible for these guys to work from a refugee camp also commodified labor and streamlined the market in such a way that they were unable to earn enough money to make a living wage. The competition in places like India proved challenging to overcome. That’s when I pivoted to teaching web development.
Before starting the project I asked these five guys what their dream job was and four of them told me they wanted to be web developers. Around the same time I saw a blog post by someone who had started a code school for refugees in Amsterdam. So to make a long story short, I flew to Amsterdam to shadow the school and then returned to Greece to set up a similar school. 3 months and about $15,000 later the school opened its doors. This month we expect to graduate our first 7 students.
My experience in Greece had a profound effect on how I think about the question of why I work. It taught me that none of us are helpless in the fight against injustice and inequality, and it also made me feel strongly that any work I do should aim to improve the lives of others. I work because at this moment there are 65 million refugees living in camps just like the one I spent time in last summer, because there are 1 billion people living in extreme poverty, and because the world’s most marginalized groups of people don’t have a voice. The goal of my new film studio is to use stories to tackle some of these problems, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” as the saying goes.
3. What is the one thing you believe to be true but others rarely agree with you on?
There is no such thing as altruism. In economics and political science one of the first things you learn is that “man is a selfish beast.” I used to think that wasn’t true. I pointed to charities and people who donate their money or time as examples of the contrary. But my experience starting a non-profit showed me that the humanitarian sector is full of self-interest. I don’t mean corruption (although that happens). The way I saw self-interest manifest was in egoists’ desire to put their name on every project possible, in some cases to the determinant of the people they claimed to be helping.
At one point we were trying to figure out where to host classes for the school. By what seemed like a miracle I found someone who ran a co-working space and offered to help. He told me that he was trying to start a code school too. We ended up partnering, but pretty quickly I realized that he wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain. So I started looking for someone to step in and take over his operational role. Again, by a small miracle I found someone who also wanted to start a code school. But unlike the first partner he was willing to pour his blood sweat and tears into it. I started working with the second partner more and more frequently and when I told the first partner the great news he told me to proceed with caution. He didn’t like the guy for reasons I never understood. I told him that we needed someone to help given how much work was required and explained that I was frustrated that he wasn’t doing as much work as he promised. Eventually we agreed to all work together, but he said that he wanted final say on any decisions. Of course this was difficult given he had a full-time job and we were moving at break-neck speed to launch the school.
After a few weeks we all sat down and the first partner started lecturing us about how we had gone behind his back by making decisions without his approval. I disagreed with his logic, but apologized. Then he continued to explain how we were disrespecting him and started cursing. He said he wanted to have approval on all decisions and I explained that wouldn’t be possible so we should discuss parting ways. At this point he started yelling and saying he’d destroy our reputation and make it impossible to start a school if we started a school without him. Keep in mind this was a non-profit school we were talking about.
One of the most interesting things I’ve ever read is a chapter from Better Angels of our Nature that explains why violence declined in medieval Europe. Steven Pinker, the author, shows that it wasn’t for any altruistic reason or because Europeans decided to start respecting one another’s human rights. Instead it was because the societies that engaged in positive sum trade prospered whereas the ones that pillaged and stole from one another did not. In other words it’s just not that profitable to steal from your neighbor. It’s much better to agree to specialize and then trade with one another.
4. Which failure or apparent failure set you up for success?
There are too many to count. And I don’t say that facetiously. I truly believe that failure is the fastest way to grow since it is the only time in your life that forces you to change (when the going is good why do anything different?)
But one notable memory was my first company, Apollosoft, that I started during my freshman year of college. I made every mistake in the book as you’d expect of a 19 year old. I didn’t do any competitive research, which at the time sounded like something that MBAs or expensive consultants did, not startup founders. Well, it turns out that those people do that for a reason. I learned 6 months into starting the business that there was a perfectly good product that nearly everyone in my market used. The only reason my first customer didn’t (and I didn’t hear about them) was because of an obscure regulation in that province of Canada. Combined with education’s slow sales cycles I was forced to shut down the business. But in starting the company I made the leap to drop out of college and move to Silicon Valley which was one of the best decision of my life.
Another one that I like to joke about is the decision not to become a co-founder of a startup that I won’t name. Instead I chose to start SimpleData since I wanted to run a lifestyle business and the other two co-founders wanted to raise money and start a growth company. I’d probably be worth 10x as much money if I had done that since the company is now worth $50m+. But I wouldn’t have traveled the world, opened my mind, and ended up in Greece. I’d still be selling widgets to salespeople. That “failure” actually helped me find purpose and meaning which are far more important, in my mind, than the additional money I could have made.
5. What is the best investment you have made in yourself?
I think that the self-taught liberal arts education I mentioned earlier was probably best. But a couple others that come to mind are: learning graphic design; video editing; cinematography. For the first couple years of my career I told myself that I was the manager/hustler instead of the doer. But not learning any technical skills would have been a big mistake.
In Good to Great, Jim Collins argues that there are two types of companies: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs focus on one thing and do it really well. Foxes do many things, but they don’t do any of them well. He argues that the best companies are hedgehogs because focus creates competitive advantage. But humans aren’t companies. Our purpose in life isn’t to maximize shareholder value. Every time that I’ve ventured into a new creative skill people tell me that I should instead specialize in the thing I’m currently doing. My manager told me this when I quit my job as a content marketer. Then I learned sales development and created the most profitable growth channel at our company. When I quit that role the CEO of the company told me I was making a mistake; I should specialize. But I quit and started SimpleData. When I sold the company, it wasn’t the right financial decision. I was basically selling future earnings and the longer I held onto the business the longer I earned income and the higher the valuation would rise. But I quit to write magazine stories. When I decided to start experimenting with film friends told me that I should focus on writing. I had just placed stories in The Atlantic and FastCompany. Now I’m at a point in my career where I have a fairly good understanding of a lot of things. I’m probably one of the few filmmakers or feature writers that can geek out over P&L statements or unit economics.
When I was in college I used to walk by this poster everyday. It read “In order to be irreplaceable one must be different.” I guess the best investments I’ve made have been the ones that have made me most irreplaceable. They’ve been risky since they’ve often meant leaving money on the table in the short term. But most of them have returned dividends over the long run.
6. Has your career been planned or a function of serendipity?
It’s probably been somewhere in between. From a really young age I wanted to be a writer. At Thanksgiving when I was 7 or 8 I wrote a short story about a dog that lived on Pluto and made my uncle read it. Then in high school I edited my school newspaper. But before graduating I read Steve Jobs’ biography and for the first time in my life I thought seriously about being an entrepreneur.
I had no idea I’d ever get into marketing or sales. I just reacted to opportunities that presented themselves. I also didn’t ever think I’d make documentaries. I always loved them as a kid, but the idea that I’d do that and get paid didn’t ever cross my mind.
Most of my career decisions probably stem from the fact that people have always told me that I can’t make money as a writer. My Dad told me that when I told him I wanted to be a newspaper columnist. My best friend told me that in high school. So I’ve done all these other things in an effort to prove them wrong, which is ironic since all I’ve done is prove the point. I’ve made a grand total of about $10,000 from magazine stories. And I’ve made the other 99% of my money from other activities.
But I think that the advantage I’ve had in those other activities — whether it was sales development or marketing — was my ability to tell a story and be creative. Conversely in the creative and humanitarian work I’ve done I think my advantage has been my understanding of business. So I think if I had planned out a career and just focused on business or writing I’d be in a much different place. I’d be another sheep in the herd.
7. What is the role of mentors in your life?
Mentors are probably the most important asset I’ve had in my career. I’m incredibly lucky to say that my parents are my best mentors. They do completely different work than I do, but my Dad’s common sense approach to business and my Mom’s creativity have been really helpful. They are my confidantes, advisors, and best friends.
When I started my first company in college I surrounded myself by three mentors that I met at Startup Weekend. Two of them are good friends of mine to this day. But back then they helped teach me things like how to price my product, how to find new customers, etc. One of the big questions that I was asking back then was whether or not to drop out of college and all of them encouraged me to do it. This was helpful given that my parents weren’t enthusiastic about that type of risk.
After I shut down that company I went to go work for an amazing manager at Highfive. He was an early employee at Salesforce and taught me nearly everything I know about marketing. In addition to that he showed me what great management looked like. He showed me the V2MOM framework that Marc Benioff developed at Salesforce which enables autonomy through alignment. He also showed me, through example, that great management is about clear communication, empathy, and vision. He set clear expectations about how I would be measured, took the time to listen to me and then offer advice, and painted a picture of what the future should look like.
After he left to start a company and eventually become the CMO of Asana I was without a manager for about 6 months. During that period I reported to the CEO who had previously started a company that was acquired by Google and became the basis for Google Drive. He was far from the nurturing, kind leader that my first manager was, but he taught me a lot. Primarily he taught me the concept of 10x vs. 10% thinking that is engrained in Google’s culture. When I came to him with a plan to increase revenue 10% he’d ask what it’d take to grow 10x and then give me the budget and autonomy to get there. As a result I was able to create the first million dollar revenue channel for the company and quickly got promoted to sales development manager.
8. What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
Don’t work with assholes. Life’s too short.
The best marketing is a great product. Focus on creating great experiences and telling great stories instead of optimizing conversion rates and looking for growth hacks.
Focus on your health. Exercise everyday. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time each morning. Eat lots of vegetables.
It’s ok to not go out to bars on Friday and Saturday. Find a group of friends that enjoys going to the movies, going to the park, cooking food, and having deep conversations.
It’s ok to be alone. Finding community and love takes time. But there’s nothing more important or fulfilling.
Don’t judge people. Some of your best friends won’t look like you. They’ll be introverts and extroverts, gay and straight, ambitious and complacent. The most important thing is that the people you surround yourself by are kind, empathetic, and curious.
Take a deep breathe and have faith in the process. You aren’t going to change the world or make your first million dollars tomorrow and that’s ok. You don’t need to know where you’re going or how you’re going to make money. Doing great things takes time. Set ambitious goals and then work really hard everyday to pursue them. But don’t measure yourself on how far you are from your goals or you’ll never be happy. Again, take a deep breathe and stop trying to figure it all out today.
9. What next?
I’m starting a film studio. The mission is to tell stories that make the world better. The primary way I’m hoping to do that is focus on telling stories that change consumer behavior or policy. A great example that I’m aspiring to is Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour about Edward Snowden. She was in the hotel room when Snowden released the documents that have since changed the world. We probably wouldn’t be talking about Snowden or privacy in the way we are if not for her work or Glenn Greenwald’s reporting.
So the big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) is to tell a story that reaches hundreds of millions of people and enters the halls of Congress.
In some ways this means stepping away from helping people directly as I was doing in Greece when I’d literally sit down with someone and show they how to use a computer, or drive them to an employment office to get their work permit. But for all the time and money that I invested I didn’t feel like I was making a big impact. The 7 students that are graduating this month are going to have dramatically different lives than they otherwise would have, but what about the other 65 million refugees worldwide or the 250 million refugees climate change will create? In many ways the work I did in Greece felt like a band-aid. The reason many of the refugees lived in the camp was because of larger issues like military-industrial lobbying that pushes politicians to bomb places like Iraq or back Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. That’s what I mean when I say I want to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It means attacking powerful entities that profit from war or exposing human rights violations affecting people without a voice.